Language · Technology · Word of the week

Word of the week: brick

Brick: it’s now a verb, as in “iOS5 upgrade bricked my iPhone 4”, which means that someone’s Apple-made mobile phone has become about as useful as a brick. I remember when mobile phones were the shape of a brick, and just as heavy, so putting “brick” and “mobile phone” into the same sentence is rather nostalgic for me. I don’t have an iPhone so am not at risk of Error 53 but it looks like the problem has been fixed anyway.

Brick has been part of phrasal verbs for a long time, of course. An Italian student explained phrasal verbs to me many years ago: verbs that use at least one extra word (typically a preposition) to give a specific meaning. (They can be very difficult for students of English to grasp.) You can look up a fact, you can look into something, you can look up to someone, or you can look down on someone: all of these constructs are very different from just looking. So you can “brick up” a window (as you might have done in the past, to avoid the window tax), or you could be “bricking it” (if you’re especially worried about something). But now a software upgrade could “brick” your mobile phone.

The word also appears as a noun in the Narnia Chronicles, which I have now finished reading to my son. As all the books are on my Kindle it was easy for me to look up exactly how many times someone is referred to as a “brick”. It’s meant as a good thing: a “brick” might also be called a “good egg”. Peter says it to Trumpkin the dwarf, in “Prince Caspian”, Lucy uses it to describe the Magician in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, Digory says it to Polly in “The Magician’s Nephew” and, most surprisingly (because he doesn’t come from Edwardian or wartime London), the Narnian Cor says it of his father. Does anyone still say, “Oh, you’re a brick” as a compliment? I doubt it, and if you did you would almost certainly be misheard, with a “P” replacing the first letter. And lip-readers wouldn’t be able to tell if you were saying “brick” or “prick”. That’s why I stopped using the latter as my default insult when being confronted by terrible driving (a daily occurrence here in West London). I replaced it with “dickhead”, which is much harder to lip-read. You can say it without moving your lips.

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